A seanachie is a traveling storyteller, and Frank Delaney comes close to being the real thing.
In his strangely moving novel, “Ireland,” the American writer from the south of the green island tells of the Storyteller, the last of a fabled breed, who arrives at the home of 9-year-old Ronan O’Mara in 1951 and mesmerizes the boy with his embellished tales of his country’s history.
For years, Ronan is haunted by his memories of the old man, and sets out on an endless quest to find him after hearing him again, on the radio.
Woven throughout Ronan’s story are the stories of Ireland as told to its people and “handed down since God was a boy.” They range from the mostly fabricated tale of the building of Newgrange, a burial mound older than the Egyptian pyramids, to the old man’s real and personal recollection of the Easter Rising.
To understand the Irish, Delaney writes, “mere facts can never be enough; this is a country that reprocesses itself through the mills of its imagination.”
There may be more truth in historical fiction than in history, because the stories bring the past to life.
My reading in the year just past was heavy on Irish historical fiction because I spent my summer vacation in and around Dublin with an old friend, Randy Norris, whom I worked with in Belfast for Habitat for Humanity 10 years ago.
Delaney’s “Ireland,” was probably the best novel I read last year, but I also let Randy talk me into reading Edward Rutherfurd’s “The Dublin Saga,” which he had just read himself — and I’m glad I did. When I finished its 1,600 pages, I wished there were more.
So many of the settings in the two-volume Rutherfurd series were places we saw, including the Hill of Tara, seat of the pagan high kings, Strongbow’s Christ Cathedral, right outside our hotel window, St. Kevin’s monastery in the starkly beautiful Wicklow Mountains and the gorse-and-heather-covered rocky cliffs of Howth Island. The stories were as real as if we were there — because we were.
Other Irish novels I read included the two most recent ones from Patrick Taylor’s “Irish Country” series, about the everyday adventures of two country doctors in 1960s Northern Ireland and their “quare” housekeeper, Kinky Kincaid. I especially liked “An Irish Country Girl,” which harkens back to Kinky’s girlhood in Cork and the tragic tale surrounding a bean sidh, a terrifying spirit.
I started reading the series three or four years ago, and it’s been a delight.
Morgan Llywelyn’s fictitious chronicle of the life of the seafaring monk, “Brendan,” was another Irish novel I read and enjoyed.
On the nonfiction side, my reading list always includes stories of great lives, and last year was no exception. Two that I liked most were the memoirs of two statesmen of our era — the late senator Edward Kennedy, “True Compass,” and former president George W. Bush, “Decision Points.”
Kennedy has long been one of my political heroes, but I’ve also recently come to respect Bush — for many of the same qualities that I admired in Kennedy.
During their careers, both men stood firmly by their core convictions, often against fierce adversity. But they were also respectful of their adversaries and were voices of moderation and cooperation in an era when the idea of reasonable compromise is frowned upon by so many who hold high office. They were also men of strength and compassion who deeply loved their family and country.
Another book I enjoyed was William F. Buckley Jr.’s memoir of his close friendship with Ronald Reagan, “The Reagan I Knew.”
As usual, my reading list also included several books on Christian spirituality. The two I found most fascinating were those that challenged my beliefs as a socially conservative evangelical. They were “Take This Bread: A Radical Conversion,” by Sara Miles and “The Sacredness of Questioning Everything,” by David Dark.
Miles’ story is astounding. It’s that of an atheist, lesbian, leftist war reporter who covered revolutions around the world until she came to faith through an emotional encounter with the living Christ in the sacrament of communion at an Episcopal church, where she found her real calling — turning a little food pantry into a massive effort to feed the hungry in San Francisco.
Dark, the grandson of a hidebound, fundamentalist preacher, has become one of the most interesting young thinkers in the postmodern “emerging church.”
In his book, Dark convinced me that honest doubt and sacred questioning make true faith possible.
No matter how certain we are of our beliefs, in this life, we all see as the Apostle Paul described it: “through a glass, darkly.”
Some other books on faith that I especially enjoyed in 2010 were “The Hole in Our Gospel” by Richard Stearns of World Vision, “One Step Closer: Why U2 Matters to Those Seeking God” by Christian Scharen, and “The Accidental Anglican: The Surprising Attraction of the Liturgical Church” by Todd C. Hunter, a former charismatic megachurch pastor who is now an evangelical Anglican bishop and parish church planter.
If you’re interested in seeing a list of all the books I read in 2010, visit my blog at http://kyvoice.com/winchestersun/newerworld/
While you’re there, feel free to comment. I would like to know what books you enjoyed this past year and why, and, if you read some of the same books I did, what you thought of them.